For all the benefits of wind power, the alternative energy source has its fair share of critics. Here are some of the common complaints against wind turbines:
Wind turbines are ugly
Whether it’s President Donald Trump or Iowa cattle producer Mason Fleenor, many people see wind turbines as an eyesore that mars the landscape.
Once turbines go up, however, people generally get over their initial reservations, said Lu Nelson, a policy program associate at the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb.
“A lot of it is the fact that these are new for people, even if you live in Iowa,” he said. “After some time, it’s just part of the landscape, and it’s not this intrusive thing anymore.”
Wind turbines are loud, and their lights are annoying
Residents such as Tom Stewart say flickering lights from the sun shining across rotating turbine blades can create a strobe effect in homes and businesses. Other residents say the synchronized blinking red lights on the turbines, which federal aviation officials require to warn aircraft, keep them awake at night.
Energy companies MidAmerican and Alliant say they try to mitigate noise and flicker. MidAmerican said it has internal standards for noise and flicker that are more stringent than local requirements.
For example, it says its goal is for neighbors to experience no more than 30 hours of shadow flickers per year.
“We want to limit the impact on neighbors,” said Michael Fehr, a MidAmerican vice president of resource development.
Ben Lipari, Alliant’s director of wind development, said the state’s second-largest utility often exceeds local regulations on how close to a home it will build. Alliant’s self-imposed setbacks keep wind towers at least 1,200 feet away from residences, he said.
“We perform intensive studies,” Lipari said, “to minimize or eliminate any of those types of effects from our wind farms.”
Wind energy isn’t viable without tax credits
Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett’s love of wind energy was fueled, at least initially, by federal tax credits that have drawn billions of dollars in investment from the Omaha-based company. That’s driven critics’ complaints that wind energy is a boondoggle that benefits only billionaires.
MidAmerican, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, says the tax credits were needed to get the fledgling industry off the ground. But it expects wind energy eventually will be competitive with coal and other forms of energy without tax credits.
Here’s why: Any analysis of energy production should include both the up-front capital costs and ongoing operational costs, says Jonathan Naughton, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Wind Energy Research Center at the University of Wyoming.
In the case of wind, the up-front cost of construction is comparatively high, but the ongoing operational cost is “negligible.” Unlike coal or gas plants, wind turbines require no fuel for operation.
“When you do that, wind is very competitive with existing forms of energy,” Naughton said. “Even unsubsidized, it still looks good.”
Wind turbines can kill birds and bats
Environmentalists regularly tout the planet-friendly nature of emission-free wind energy, but massive wind turbines do leave their mark on the environment. Researchers estimate that turbines kill tens of thousands of birds annually.
The American Bird Conservancy estimates as many as 1.4 million birds will die annually from turbines by 2030 as America continues transitioning to wind. The American Wind Energy Association downplays those concerns, arguing that wind turbines are responsible for only an “extremely small fraction of human-related avian fatalities.”
Sri Sritharan, an Iowa State University engineering professor, said research shows wind farms cause only 0.01 percent of bird fatalities. But it’s still a problem developers are trying to mitigate.
New technologies can monitor bird traffic and stop turbines until birds have cleared the area, Sritharan said.
MidAmerican Energy officials said they are working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials to determine wind’s impact on birds. But CEO Bill Ferhrman noted the utility doesn’t build turbines in eastern Iowa to prevent killing eagles and birds along that major migratory path.
Wind turbines can make people sick
Online forums are full of reports from turbine neighbors that the sights and sounds of the spinning blades cause headaches, nausea and other health problems. Critics complain both about the noise from the rotors and low-frequency “infra-sound.”
In 2015, then-Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott cited the “potential health impacts” of turbines when criticizing wind energy’s growth in that country, The Guardian reported.
Kevin Lehs, a project manager with Iowa-based wind development firm RPM Access, says there’s no evidence to support claims of adverse health effects.
“Wind has been happening in the state of Iowa for 20 years. And we haven’t seen anything published anywhere talking about people getting sick because of wind,” he said.
Wind energy takes farmland out of production
Iowa is home to some of the nation’s most prized farmland. In 2016, the state’s fertile soil fetched an average sale price of $7,183 per acre, according to an Iowa State University study.
Many wind opponents think it makes no sense to take farmland out of production to install giant concrete and metal wind farms. But wind developers say each tower takes only about one-half acre out of commission.
O’Brien County farmer Kelly Vey isn’t so sure. He said the wind farm there dots about 100,000 acres. And the massive cranes used to build the turbines can damage underground drainage tiles and compact soil, causing ponding that can make it difficult to grow crops.
MidAmerican Energy leaders say the utility – or its wind developers – pay farmers for crop damage caused during construction. They’ll also use deep-tillage machines to help reverse compacting.
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